The White House announced Monday that President Barack Obama will sign an executive order meant to improve training for local law enforcement agencies that receive equipment through federal grant programs. Among the proposed initiatives is a 3-year, $263 million investment package, of which $75 million would go toward covering half the cost of 50,000 officer-mounted cameras -- a technology that has been widely cited as a necessary police reform following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot and killed by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson in August.
Monday's announcement was greeted by some as a victory for transparency in law enforcement. Yet with almost 630,000 police officers working nationwide, it's not clear how much of an effect even 50,000 cameras would have.
Body cameras have long been a popular proposal among police reform advocates, who say that documenting interactions between officers and civilians can help to eliminate bias and uncertainty regarding alleged misconduct by either party. One frequently cited pilot program in Rialto, California, found that between 2012 and 2013, in the first year of the city using police cameras, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent and use of force by officers fell by almost 60 percent.
Despite resistance from some police officials and union members who have called the cameras an unnecessary distraction for officers, departments in major cities like Chicago, New York, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., as well as smaller cities like Ferguson, have started using cameras, or have at least announced plans to do so.
Obama's $75 million program, which still requires congressional approval, would seek to ease the financial burden of outfitting police officers with cameras by providing a 50 percent funding match to states and localities that decide to participate. (Individual cameras cost between $300 and $400, on top of which are the costs associated with storing and maintaining the data recorded by the devices.) But with no ability to compel local police departments to get behind this move, the administration must simply hope that enough law enforcement volunteers are willing to join the program.
In addition -- as the Police Executive Research Forum presented to the Department of Justice in a 2014 report -- there are still plenty of concerns from both the law enforcement and civil rights communities about how, exactly, a large-scale police camera program would be implemented. Which interactions, for example, would be recorded? How would the review process work? Such questions are further complicated by state laws that differ on when and where people may be recorded, as well as how such recordings may be stored and accessed by the public.
Monday also saw the release of a White House review on the programs that provide military equipment to local police departments -- a project first undertaken in August in response to criticism over militarized police behavior in Ferguson. It's difficult to ignore the sheer difference in scale between Obama's proposed police camera program and the sum of all federal grant programs to local law enforcement. In the past five years, grants from five different federal agencies have totaled about $18 billion -- money that has gone toward everything from office supplies to mine-resistant armored vehicles, or MRAPs, fit for the battlefield.
A recent review of a handful of MRAPs given to local law enforcement agencies found that the federal government had spent $5.7 million on these types of vehicles in New York state alone. The administration's report documented a total of 617 MRAPs and 616 aircraft among the 460,000 total pieces of controlled property currently maintained by local police forces.
In its announcement Monday, the White House noted a "lack of consistency" in how these federal grants have been implemented. Yet at the same time, the White House review claims the programs have been useful, and provides no suggestions for repealing or significantly restructuring them. Instead, the administration plans to focus more generally on improving "training" and accountability, as well as signing an additional executive order to create a Task Force on 21st Century Policing. This group will examine "how to promote effective crime reduction while building public trust," and will organize its findings in a report for the president within 90 days.